Bits & Pieces: "The Small Details: Amy Sacksteder and Brenda Singletary" conjure meaning through assemblages at U-M's Institute for the Humanities Gallery


Brenda Singletary, The World Turns

Brenda Singletary, The World Turns, 2022, assemblage, 8” x 7” x 3”. Photo K.A. Letts.

It all adds up in The Small Details, a two-person exhibition on view now through July 29 at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery in Ann Arbor.

Through accretion, addition, and accumulation Amy Sacksteder and Brenda Singletary conjure meaning from bits and pieces—ceramic and glass shards, wire, photos—assembling personal narratives that are highly specific in their material, but universal in their intent.

Brenda Singletary’s artworks occupy two walls of the gallery and offer a guided tour of her evolving formal means. The Detroit native—now living in Toledo, Ohio—begins with paintings in relatively conventional rectangular formats as seen in Faith Hope and Charity and Tropical Winds. These nonrepresentational yet evocative artworks feature airy, gestural paint handling in decorative colors, punctuated by thin black hieroglyphic lines of mysterious origin and meaning. Several of her artworks also feature vintage cutout photos of her family superimposed onto her abstract paintings. Her addition of these figurative elements is typical of a trend among young Black artists; by inserting African-American figures into the narrative of art history through their work, they aim to provide a corrective for previous exclusion. 

But Singletary’s heart (it seems to me at least) belongs to abstraction, and with her increasingly free-form, cloud-like wall pieces she begins to take flight. In Human Moment, the artist pulls the colorful nonfigurative imagery away from the rectangular ground and applies it to a wire armature that allows more freedom of movement for her breezy painting. Bow Tie and The World Turns extend the process of deconstructing the format, though she continues to embed found objects: soda can tops, bits of credit cards, and the like. With pieces like Green Fling and Sunburst Singletary’s transition to pure free-form abstraction is complete. She has moved off-planet and into a universe of her own making. 

Amy Sacksteder, Interruptions: The Other Side of Light (detail)

Amy Sacksteder, Interruptions: The Other Side of Light/2017, Silver leaf and acrylic on hand-cut paper, custom pedestal. Photo courtesy of U-M School of Humanities Gallery.

The elements of Amy Sacksteder’s body of work in The Small Details are more concrete—sometimes literally--and often depend on the juxtaposition of disparate materials unified by color in mini-installations. The multi-part array of assembled objects that range across one wall of the gallery are made from scraps of ordinary-looking plaster or stone, shards of emerald-colored glass, or bits of ceramic. She also includes more conventional objects, like ceramic jars and two-dimensional “paintings” composed of flat glass fragments, as in her pair of assemblages, Grounded and Ungrounded. The combination of collage and ceramic objects arranged on a table near the window of the gallery seems to want very much to be taken as landscape. Sacksteder succeeds particularly well with the whitish ceramic pieces at the center of the table that might be plateaus (or sphinxes?) Seen from a distance, they are both diminutive and monumental. 

Two of Sacksteder’s most satisfying works are her largest in the exhibition. Interruptions: The Other Side of Light, flirts with the luminous play of radiance on the wall. This lacy cutout is reflective silver leaf on one side, but on the back, we can make out the glow of fluorescent orange that causes the wall to glow. The squared-off oval shapes reminiscent of car body parts or plastic blister packs that are typical of much of Sacksteder’s work have been cut out of the sheet on the wall and form a scattering of wafer-like bits at the foot on a kind of altar. 

The post-industrial elements that characterize Sacksteder’s silvery wall piece are repeated and elaborated in Pandemic Patina, an artwork that seems to have begun as a conventional painting on stretched canvas, but which has traveled very far indeed from its formal source. Those car windshield shapes are back, but the artist has cut through the face of the canvas to reveal an additional metallic plane, as well as a gilded stretcher bar, upon which rest stones that echo round shapes painted on the face of the painting. The fluorescent orange that Sacksteder seems to like so much appears here again, both on the back of the canvas and in elements on the front, setting up an intriguing back-and-forth, front-to-back dialog between the various layers of the wall piece.

The Institute for the Humanities and Gallery Director Amanda Krugliak deserve some serious credit from the Ann Arbor arts community, both for consistently curating interesting exhibitions and for reaching out beyond academia with their offerings. The Small Details will be on view for extended hours during the Art Fairs this year and the selection of these two artists is clearly intentional as a counterpoint to the more conventional crafts on the street. The small scale of the work, as well as the formal inventiveness with which Sacksteder and Singletary handle their materials, will provide visitors with an alternative conceptual point of reference from which to enjoy and critique the usual art fair fare.  

K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at

"The Small Detailsis at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery, 202 S. Thayer St., Ann Arbor, Mon-Fri 9 am – 5 pm daily. Art fair hours July 21, 22, 23, 10 am – 6 pm.